Three days after the Jhelum breached its embankments, angrily engulfing most of Srinagar, I walked into Kashmir University’s relief camp. I had a small rucksack containing my laptop and three sets of clothes — all that I had been able to carry when my landlord urged me to leave on September 7. I had barely finished a month in a log hut on the banks of Nigeen lake, doing research for a book.
When the rains began, I was safe in a room that lay under the protective arms of a giant chinar tree. Herons, eagles and other birds took shelter under my window, as the rain incessantly beat down on the tin roof. When the rain did not cease the next day, the landlord warned me I may have to seek shelter elsewhere. South Kashmir was reeling under floods and Badami Bagh, in Srinagar, where the army cantonment is, was under several feet of water. The rains stopped on Saturday night, and I retired to bed having witnessed a glorious sunset.
The rain came back in full force the next morning, gobbling up the garden outside my hut. I decided to take the landlord’s advice and leave. I had little money since ATMs were not functioning and was finding it difficult to contact anyone since mobile networks weren’t working properly. I rang a friend in Rajbagh, asking for shelter. She said water had entered two storeys in her building. I sent a WhatsApp message to another friend who replied, “Home drowned. Took only half an hour in the morning around 3am.”
That was when I realised the gravity of the situation. After a series of calls, the hut owner arranged for me to stay with some acquaintances in the neighbourhood. A shikarawalla came via the lake since the pathway to the hut was under several feet of water. On Facebook, I witnessed the magnitude of the maelstrom. Water, almost twenty feet high, was swirling around Lal Chowk and Polo View, the most famous and familiar sights of Srinagar. People I knew were making several appeals for boats. The network was fading, and, by night, all mobiles and landlines went dead.
I wandered the streets; there was an eerie silence on the roads. No honking, no armed troops, no armoured vehicles, no policemen. Boatloads of people had arrived from the hinterlands in small kashtis (wooden boats), expertly guided by Hanj, the community that lives on the lake. These small boats carried cows, goats, bedding, stoves and, in one instance, even a washing machine.
Meanwhile, the Nigeen had risen dangerously. The overflow was not as dramatic as the Jhelum’s but was destructive nevertheless. Like a silent monster, it began submerging homes one after another in the narrow gullies. Attracted to the buzzing activity within Kashmir University, I made my way to the registration desk, and a student courteously took my details. I was promised food, accommodation and a blanket. I felt immediately reassured to be a part of the displaced community milling around me. A mixed crowd of some 3000 people had converged — from Hazratbal, Chanapora, Khanyar Chowk, Boatmen’s Colony, Fisherman Colony and Khayam Chowk and students from the Central University and National Institute of Technology.
I sat on the lawns of the humanities block and watched Mehraj-ud-Din, a student volunteer, making announcements with a portable loud speaker. He was seeking help for a pregnant woman and a seriously ill child. (I have since learnt that Mehraj worked selflessly even though he was under severe stress because his Rajbagh home had submerged and he was unable to contact his family. It was only after five days that he met his father on Rajbagh Bridge and found out his family had been rescued by some locals.)
An urgent appeal went out for more volunteers to attempt a rescue effort in Rajbagh, the worst affected area in Srinagar, where people were still trapped in the uppermost storeys. This attempt, with an improvised raft and tubing, was unsuccessful as the waters were too rough. But, it was becoming increasingly clear that it was civil society’s efforts that would fill the void of little to no governance.
Later that day, I was invited to tea by Arzoo, the wife of a volunteer and lecturer, in the staff quarters. In a most heart-warming gesture, I, a total stranger, was given a room and treated to typical Kashmiri hospitality. I would stay there for the next five days till I could find a way to the airport and back to Mumbai.
During my stay, I learnt more about the relief camp and rescue operations. Sajjad, a student, explained how they began from ground zero. “Some 20 hostel students made contributions and began relief operations. Staff and lecturers from various departments in the university pitched in. These included Dr Ashfaq Ahmed Zarir, the deputy registrar, Dr Jahangir Iqbal, nodal officer in the Persian languages department, Dr Naseer Iqbal, chief proctor, and members from the transport section, sanitation department, the examination centre, health centre and others who are permanently stationed in the campus. Their participation provided crucial infrastructure and logistics.”
Doctors in the surrounding area immediately offered their services. So did people with cars. Efforts snowballed. “After two days, we no longer needed contributions. Residents from Srinagar, in and around the dargah and Lal Bazar, began sending in supplies even as the numbers of those seeking refuge in the relief camp swelled,” said Sajjad. One of the main challenges remained the lack of communication. Anxiety over the fate of loved ones and inability to inform others about one’s own safety gnawed at everyone’s mental well-being. A young student, Barbara Khan, who had been rescued by boat from Khayam Chowk, was separated from her family during rescue. She could only wait and pray. Zayeeda, seven months pregnant, who had come from Tangmarg to attend a wedding, was stranded. Her husband was in Bareilly; her mother back home.
Above all, there was a feeling of total abandonment by the state and the nation. Helicopters hovered overhead day after day, but there were no dramatic rescues. No one visited. No offers of help were made. This led to frayed tempers, with people shouting imprecations and shaking their fists. On the fifth day, a helicopter flew low, flinging a few packets of prepared food — a futile exercise since food was already being cooked and served. The packets lay untouched all day.
In a desperate bid to communicate, crowds would throng the building that had a mobile tower at night and hold up their mobiles in a feverish attempt to get a signal. Only a lucky few could connect. For those conducting rescue missions, the lack of communication became even more frustrating. It did not help matters that there was a huge disconnect between what television reporters were saying and the reality. How could you use helplines with no connectivity? There was an urgent need for diesel. All our camp had was one fibreglass boat, a dinghy and other improvised rafts.
Dr Jahangir Iqbal explained how mud houses in smaller colonies along the river had collapsed. The debris, lack of proper streets and undulating terrain made access difficult, and volunteers often pulled on overhanging electric wires to try and gain entry. Among those rescued were two women with newborns and, in one bizarre case, a young girl who stepped out of her house in stylish jeans and full make-up. There were unusual requests as well. A migrant labourer wanted tobacco rather than food; another wanted a cigarette.
Slowly, the network came flickering back, messages going through at odd hours. I learnt from photographers that Tata Sumos were taking passengers to the airport. I waited two more days as the diesel shortage had affected vehicular movement. On September 15, an SUV driver agreed to take me to the airport through the circuitous route. At the Bemina Bypass, he drove through waters that were still waist-high. Submerged cars bobbed around in the waters, lurching drunkenly on the side. The driver told me that in Lal Chowk he had seen cars piled on top of each other.
Close to the airport, there were people camping on road dividers in flimsy tents, a pitiable sight as they sat there amid their vessels and a blanket or two. At the airport, an immaculate tourist in a short dress and boots in stiletto heels cut an incongruous figure among the hundreds of migrant workers who were in rubber chappals or bare-footed. As the plane began taxiing, I kept my eyes tightly shut. I could not bear to look down at the desolation of a beautiful city I was abandoning. I wanted to cling to the image of the snow peaks and golden light of the valley that had welcomed me just weeks earlier.